State Rep. Bill DeWeese officially introduced his proposal yesterday to add table games to Pennsylvania's casinos. Under the measure, casino operators would pay a $10 million fee up-front to inaugurate games such as blackjack, poker and craps at their currently slots-only facilities.
"I feel confident," said DeWeese (D., Greene), who introduced table-games legislation last year that failed to reach a vote. This year, he noted, the sputtering economy and the state's $3.2 billion budget shortfall could work in his favor.
"Discussions I have had with the Senate president and House Appropriations chairman lead me to believe that our table-games proposal has significantly more momentum now than it did just a week or two ago," DeWeese said. "I just think that reality is starting to set in. Republicans are telling the governor they are not voting for broad-based taxes."
One local Republican, Bucks County State Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, confirmed yesterday that he would soon roll out a table-games bill similar to DeWeese's. Tomlinson, whose district includes PhiladelphiaPark Casino & Racetrack, the state's top grossing slots parlor, said he and Sen. Robert J. Mellow (D., Lackawanna) started crafting a proposal a couple weeks ago.
"We have some working groups looking into it," Tomlinson said. "It wouldn't totally take care of our financial woes, but it could create jobs and enhance gaming revenues and help existing Pennsylvania casinos compete with Delaware coming on with table games and sports betting. We already compete with Atlantic City, which has table games."
For his part, Gov. Rendell said adding table games would not make a dent in the budget deficit, and he questioned the need to add the games this year.
"I don't think it brings in enough revenue to make a difference," Rendell said yesterday, after announcing a series of broad-based taxes intended to help close the budget gap. "I still think we need to get the new venues up and running . . . although early returns are unbelievable.
"I have not seen that this could be . . . ," he said. "Having said that, if a bill passes, I will take a look at it."
That hasn't deterred DeWeese, who met with Tomlinson last night to discuss the matter.
DeWeese's staff has calculated that table games could generate an additional $200 million to $300 million a year for the state. The eight operating slots parlors have generated more than $1.5 billion in revenue in the past fiscal year.
"If it's a $3 billion deficit and table games bring in $300 million - that's a dent of 10 percent," DeWeese said. "Ed Rendell knows that next year's budget is even more excruciating because of the diminution of money coming from the Obama administration, so we have to plan ahead.
"We have to be very inventive in the next several weeks. . . . We have to start making our way to a table-games bill that would parallel the surrounding states."
But his proposal has its critics. State Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks), a staunch opponent of expanding gaming, said that although another gambling initiative - adding video poker at bars and taverns to generate revenue - has died down in favor of table games, he doubts they have enough votes to pass it.
"This is not a legitimate way to balance the budget," he said. Gaming is a form of regressive taxation that will result in more social costs than benefits, Clymer added.
If his bill passes and is signed by the governor along with the budget, table games could be up and running in six months, DeWeese said.
Greg Fajt, the new head of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, said the board would need at least nine months to set up mechanisms to regulate table games.
The House Gaming Oversight Committee has an informational hearing scheduled for next Wednesday on the impact of table-games revenue.